Heart Of The World – Snippet 10

“Ah, well,” the Khatun said. “Come sit down. Tell me why you are crying.” With her hand she drew Dinah forward. Beside the big chair was a stool, and Dinah sank down on it.

“You ruined my city,” Dinah said. She was gushing with tears. Everything she had suffered poured out of her. “You destroyed us.”

“This happened,” the Khatun said. Her hand lay on Dinah’s shoulder; her fingers pressed and kneaded, as if she would push her into another shape. “And you have been hurt and you have lost all. We did this to you. You see only that we destroy. But we are bringing in a greater world. We must wipe away the old world first, to bring the new. We are gathering all the peoples of the world together again, as we were meant to be, under the most high God, as the earth lies under the sky.”

Dinah lifted her head, astonished. The Khatun smiled at her. Her hand shifted to Dinah’s cheek. “You are welcome here. You are my guest.”

Dinah lowered her head. She could not think this into anything straight. She felt suddenly exhausted. The Khatun touched her again, soft.

“Your father was a rebbe — was he a scholar?”

“There were thousands of scholars in Baghdad.”

“And he was one?”

She sighed. “Yes.”

“And you are a scholar? You recognized Idrisi’s map. You speak Arabic. What else?”

Dinah blinked at her. “Hebrew. Some Farsi.”

“Can you read?”

“Some. Hebrew.”

“Can you read Latin? Can you read this?” The Khatun reached down to the table and took something from the floor beside it, and held it out.

Dinah took this up, a scroll of reed-paper. Black ink marks crossed it, lines and circles, and she could make nothing of it for a moment, until part of a word swam up at her, and she saw the marks as letters of the Latin alphabet. “Frere,” she said. “This is French.”

She began to weep again, tears trickling down her cheeks. The Khatun took her by the chin and turned her face up.

“Why are you crying now?”

“You murdered him,” Dinah said bitterly. “Him I knew who spoke French.” She rubbed at her eyes.

The Khatun patted her cheek. “Ah, poor thing.”

Dinah turned her face away.  This kindness gave her nothing to defy. Across a space covered with rugs Nikola stood watching her. The Khatun took the scroll out of her lax grip.

“You have endured much, and yet you live. You interest me. You will stay here, I shall find you some duties. Now share chah with me.” 

With her finger she beckoned over a stout woman in a long shining gown.

This woman went to the little table. She poured water from the ewer into a cup, and set the cup on the brazier. After a moment it was bubbling, and the servant emptied it quickly into another cup, filled it again, and set that on the brazier. When this cup was boiling, she dumped out the water in the second cup, filled it again with the fresh boiled water, and opened the little chest.

A heap of dry leaves filled it. A wonderful aroma escaped it. The servant sprinkled several of the leaves on the water, and from the table took a round of wood and fit it over the top of the cup.

Dinah murmured. The Khatun said, “I learned to drink this in the east, when my lord and I were there for the kuriltai.” She spoke as if she and Dinah had known each other for years.  There seemed no space between them, as if they were old friends. The servant was going through the whole process with a second cup. When she was done, she took the wooden lid from the first, and kneeling down held the cup out with both hands to the Khatun.

Dokaz stood; she took the cup, held it up to the sky, then to right and left, then toward the ground, and then back and forth. She sat again, and sipped up the steaming drink. “Aaah,” she said. “The eyelids of God, the Han call this.”

The servant gave Dinah the second cup with far less ceremony. Dinah held it, uncertain. She thought briefly again of Persephone, but the delicious smell filled her nose and made her mouth water. She lifted the cup. It was hot, almost too hot to drink, and she sipped cautiously. The savor flowed over her tongue. She felt suddenly warm and happy. Looking to the Khatun, standing there above her, she smiled.  


The women had one side of the big tent, and the men the other. At night they slept on mats on the floor. During the day they sat and gossiped and waited to be told what to do.

They took the rugs out into the sun, shook them, beat them, and brought them in again. They kept the fire going in the iron hearth, carrying in dried dung to fuel it. They took food here and there. Dinah obeyed.  They gave her a broom and she swept. They gave her a bucket and she went for water. The work was steady but easy. She felt light, hollow, an empty skin. Everything she knew was gone, the household she had managed, the father who had ordered her life, the city that had contained her. She had nothing to hold onto. She watched the other women, and did what they did, stood waiting to be fed, used a certain part of the latrine. Slept on the floor.  

She learned words. The tent was a ger, the clear fermented milk was airaq. Nikola was a noyon. Thank you, please. She learned names, like Jun, the big breasted woman who gave them all orders. Tulla, slight and pretty, who could speak some Arabic.

There was a baby, which they brought to her often; he cried a lot, even with his honeytit to suck on. His mother had died.

Tulla said, “He die too, alas. So be it.” She patted Dinah’s shoulder and said something in Mongol.

But Dinah loved to hold him, to have something, anyway, to care for. She took him outside, to the edge of the platform, in the sun.

The camp spread out around her. On either side of this ger was another, just as big, and around them all a little open ground, like a dry moat. Beyond that the gers crowded the long slope as far as she could see. Once she thought it must have been grassland but now the ground was beaten to dust. She sat with the baby in the sun, sang to him as he cried, and lifted her head into the warmth.

He slept, after a while. Cradling him in her crossed legs, she leaned down past the edge of the board floor and smoothed the dust with her hand. With her finger she traced letters in the dust. Some other children came out of the ger, the little girl and two boys. One of the boys was the Khatun’s youngest son, Nikola’s brother. This gave him nothing with the other boy, who was bigger and picked on him. They both went off quickly toward the horses in the open ground. The little girl came over to Dinah and sat down.

She said something, which Dinah thought meant, what are you doing?

Dinah said, “I’m trying to write, khatun.”

The little girl giggled. She probably didn’t understand but she liked being called by the honored word. She leaned on Dinah and watched, and Dinah drew the letters of the Latin script in the dust with her finger.

She remembered how Dokaz had reacted when she recognized the French. If she could remember this, she could find some favor. Once, she had studied this. Her father had often needed help with his library, and she had learned to read the titles of scrolls and books in the Hebrew and the Latin scripts. She thought the Latin letters had some order but she had no idea what it was. The Hebrew script began with Aleph and so she put the Latin A first, and slowly she remembered others, and said their sounds, and drew them in the dust.

The little girl beside her moved closer. Dinah looked over; the child was drawing in the dust, looking carefully at what Dinah did, and copying it.